The lack of diversity in the restaurant industry is not news. Recent media attention in the form of certain white, male chefs and restaurant owners being exposed for sexual harassment has brought the issue to the surface, but the statistics have told the same story for years. According to data from the 2015 American Community Survey, 79 percent of chefs and head cooks employed in the United States were men, 59 percent of those men were white.
And Rochester doesn't escape this inequity. Four women chefs and cooks were interviewed for this story. They come from diverse backgrounds and different levels of culinary experience, but share some commonalities: Fond memories of being in the kitchen with relatives and learning food traditions from them, graduating from college and wondering what the hell comes next, and starting a career and realizing that it wasn't what they'd expected it to be. Their particular experiences also vary — some of them are mothers, and some have had different experiences of life behind the line.
These women each shared their stories about how they came to cooking and their insights on how the kitchen climate is for women in the culinary world. The strongest link between them is the hard work and passion that they put into the food they create and their unwillingness to take any bullshit thrown their way.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Andrea Parros
Andrea Parros, owner of The Red Fern (283 Oxford Street), grew up outside of Boston in a Greek family that loved to cook. Following her mother around the kitchen, she learned how to make soups and Spanakopita, and always had a curiosity for the culinary process.
"I was very curious about where our food comes from, how it gets put together on a plate," Parros says.
She pursued a music business major at Northeastern University in Boston, but when Napster and other music-sharing software exploded onto the scene, she knew that the industry was going to be forever changed. After graduating and beginning the early-20's "what am I going to do with my life" crisis, she decided to apply for a position as a dishwasher at a café she frequented in Boston.
Parros says that she was confronted about her willingness to do the job, "They were very clear to me: 'Are you sure? This is a really dirty job' — almost like, 'Are you sure can do this? You're a girl. You sure you want to do this?'"
After reassuring them that she was interested in the position, despite the possibility of getting dirty, she was hired. About a week in, the brunch cook quit and Parros jumped at the opportunity to take on the position.
"It was the kind of place where no one had any formal training," she says. "You learned the ropes by watching your co-workers. I loved the fast pace; I loved that you had to be accurate because if you weren't the servers would scream at you. I really liked how technical and fast you had to be."
Parros spent two years at the café learning the ropes of both the kitchen and the business, working as a prep cook, waitress, and shift supervisor, followed by a brief stint working in Hawaii — which informed the kind of food that Parros would cook going forward.
She developed a severe rash in Hawaii and after returning to the mainland, visiting a dermatologist, and going through rounds of allergy testing, it was discovered that she had an allergy to wheat and dairy.
"I was vegetarian at that point," Parros says. "Basically everything I was eating — yogurt, bread — I was allergic to."
She began experimenting with vegan recipes and finding that the options available for vegans were less than desirable, to say the least. "Everything I would buy at the store, I would say 'this is disgusting, this bread tastes like cardboard, this cheese is like rubber,'" she says. "That inspired me, I don't want to feel like I'm missing anything. And the other factor was that I felt like I couldn't go out to eat anywhere with anyone because there was nothing I could eat."
Parros met her then-boyfriend Jeff Ching while working at the Boston restaurant, and the two of them decided to relocate to his hometown of Rochester and open a vegetarian restaurant that became The Owl House — after the Atomic Eggplant closed, they recognized the lack of vegetarian options in Rochester.
If you were to compile a list of things that couples shouldn't do if they wanted to stay together, opening a restaurant together would probably be at the top of the list. They ended their relationship, Parros left the business, and she spent five months in mourning and meditating on what to do next. She considered opening another vegetarian restaurant, and when a friend asked her why she wouldn't serve strictly vegan food — when that was all she could eat herself —The Red Fern was conceptually born.
"The menu was designed with the idea that I wanted food that everyone was already familiar with, just vegan versions," Parros says. You'll find macaroni and cheese nachos on the menu, as well as a "steak" bomb sandwich.
"I think people that hear the word 'vegan' get immediately turned off," Parros says. "What I wanted to do was take all the comfort foods, all the foods I loved to eat as a kid, and just make a vegan version."
Parros's experience working in the kitchens influenced the kind of environment that she wanted to create at her own restaurant.
"My first job was in an Italian restaurant in the town next to where I grew up," she says. "I worked there for two years, as a dishwasher and making salads and appetizers, that's where I saw what a real kitchen dynamic is usually like — where you have sexist chefs yelling and saying inappropriate things to the servers, but it's all a part of the culture — it's all supposed to be funny."
Parros says she's always been like "one of the guys," so she never encountered anything that made her feel personally uncomfortable. But she's seen the harsh environment's effect on others — where chefs lose their tempers, for example — and knew she didn't want that kind of climate in her own kitchen.
"For me, cooking is like a way of healing. It's medicine," she says. "So when you're cooking for yourself or someone else you are sharing a piece of yourself with them — it can be really healing for people. When you eat a really good meal that's really well made with heart and soul, you feel it. I wanted a place where people could come — anyone that had similar experience with their food allergies, or someone who is a vegan — a place where people could come and feel good healing energy and a good sense of community and good ethically-based food."
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Candace Doell
Candace Doell landed at The Owl House (75 Marshall Street) in her late-20's. She had worked in pizza shops, in customer service, and front-of-house positions in restaurant, but hadn't found any profession that made her happy. She started to hone her culinary skills at The Owl House under the tutelage of then-Head Chef Brian Van Etten.
"He kind of took me under his wing and showed me a lot of technique that I needed to know," Doell says. "I always had the creative ideas but I didn't know how to execute them."
For the first year, she washed dishes, made salads, and cooked lunch. She considered culinary school, but the $35,000 for a 10-month program was not feasible, so she learned the profession "hard-knocks-style," as she puts it.
"One year into it, the 60-hour work weeks started," Doell says. "It was exhausting, but I really loved what I was doing and for the first time in my life I felt proud and really happy in what I was doing."
She says the opportunity to work with fresh ingredients and cook with meat and produce from local sources was inspiring.
"If you are a budding cook or chef it's amazing to be able to hone your skills with really good quality ingredients," she says. "You can fuck up, but it'll probably taste good."
Doell took maternity leave from The Owl House in 2015, and has since adjusted her work schedule so she can spend time with her daughter.
"I'm there now during the days and I get to prep all the food," she says, "which at a place like Owl House is really important because 90 percent of what we do is from scratch. I get to write a lot of the recipes for what we make so I still get to have a lot of creative thinking."
That includes creating three or four vegan and gluten-free soups per week for the menu. "I don't think I've ever made the same soup twice," she says.
Working in the kitchen at The Owl House has been a positive experience for Doell, but she's seen the other side of things while working in a front-of-house position in New York City.
"The kitchen staff was really aggressive, sexist, and it made me feel really shitty when I would go home," she says. "It would make me feel anxious to go to work — and while I'm not glad I experienced that 'cause it fucking sucks, I'm glad that I had that to look back on so that I don't treat other people that I work with that same way."
Doell says she recognizes both a lack of diversity in terms of women and people of color in leadership roles in the kitchen.
"If you look at the restaurant industry as a whole, it's something that I really get disappointed in," she says. "You have restaurants opening in the Public Market that don't even employ a single person of color and if you look at the statistics of people living in that area you wonder what the fuck is going on here. Restaurant owners and managers need to be more conscious of their hiring practices. If we're not giving people those opportunities then it's always going to be like this, and that fucking sucks."
Doell eventually wants to open a small catering kitchen, and offer culinary classes to women who are released from prison, teaching them basic culinary technique.
"It's important to give back to your community — more people need to think about these things," she says. "And that's where it's good to have a female presence and a female voice because I feel like women really do look out for each other and we care about the future, the world that our kids are going to grow up in."
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Hayley Rosen
Hayley Rosen has been cooking with her dad since she was little. She attended Philadelphia University first for fashion design before switching to industrial design. After graduating, she returned to Rochester to be close to family and started cooking at her father's restaurant, The Mendon House, where she fell in love with the profession.
Rosen left The Mendon House and started working at Branca in Bushnell's Basin, where she was eventually promoted to sous chef.
"It was a big learning experience," she says, "a big step up from being a cook and not having that much experience — that's how I learned how to cook. I enjoyed the responsibility and experience from it. I think it's taught me more; how to manage things."
After two years, she left Branca, and after a brief stint at Wegmans' Amore, she landed at Restaurant Good Luck.
"I love the creative aspect of cooking," Rosen says. "I'm a very giving person — I enjoy when people enjoy what I do, what I cook, and have a great experience."
Rosen says that her background in design has informed her culinary experience: "I found myself enthralled with how artistic food can be — how flashy you can make it look with fancy garnishes and sauces and frills," she says. "After working with various chefs I found that my ideas on food were evolving — they went from something that was perceived to be 'cool' or 'trendy' to something thoughtful and well-orchestrated."
Rosen says she's never distinctly noticed being treated differently as a woman behind the line.
"I have come across people saying 'women have no place in the kitchen,'" she says. "I've always just kind of laughed at that. What basis do you have to make these assumptions or remarks? I've never had anything said to me — or felt that I don't belong. I've felt that my work ethic and what I bring to the table is more valuable than whether I'm a woman or not. I've always been grateful that everyone that I work for has felt the same way."
Since this interview, Rosen has left Good Luck to help open an upcoming beer garden in Rochester.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Kimberly Roth
Kimberly Roth may be the most recognizable female chef in Rochester due to her appearance on the 16th season of Gordon Ramsay's "Hell's Kitchen." Out of the 18 contestants on the cooking competition show, she finished in fourth place.
"I worked at a burger place when I was around 15 years old and they didn't want me to cook because I was a girl," Roth says. "'I can't cook you burgers and fries, but I can cook beef Wellington for Gordon Ramsay! How do you feel now?'" she says with a laugh.
Roth grew up cooking with her grandmother and her father but never thought she would make a career out of it. She started nursing school and dropped out three different times; healthcare just wasn't for her. She got the opportunity to learn how to make sushi at California Rollin and really found her niche.
"I like being in the kitchen; I like cooking," she says, "I like the satisfaction of seeing a person smile when I gave them something great. I like knowing that I did that to them. Being in the kitchen and creating works of art — some of the stuff that people do, including what I do with the sushi, it's gorgeous to look at — it's pretty awesome."
She gave birth to her daughter while she was working for California Rollin, and says she was told to be back at work in three weeks or lose her job.
"My daughter was born November 11 and December 8 was my first day back," she says, "And it was hard being a young mom — I wanted to make sure we had money for Christmas."
Roth says she was unable to breastfeed her daughter due to the stress she was putting on her body from the long work days, and credits her kid's father for being there when she was unable to be during that first year.
She left California Rollin to help her daughter's father start his sushi food truck, Stingray Sushifusion. Five years after working on the truck, she was chosen to compete on "Hell's Kitchen." Roth was the only contestant during that season who hadn't been formally trained at a culinary school, and says she relied on independently-acquired skills to try to impress Ramsay.
"I try to stay well-versed in everything," she says. "It was just a love and passion of cooking that helped drive me and fuel my career."
Today, Roth is an in-demand personal chef and has started her own company, The Bamboo Panda Catering Company. She's partnered with Casa Larga Vineyards to host Sip and Sushi at Casa Larga, an often sold-out sushi-making class.
Roth says that in working for herself, she has found a balance between her business and clients and family time — she's able to put dinner on the table every night, be there in the morning when her daughter wakes, and put her on the bus.
"That means a lot to me," she says, "having that freedom right now with my career to do what I still need to do for us to survive financially, but also be surviving as a family."
As for the future, Roth is looking for something a bit more tropical: "I would like to have a brick-and-mortar location that is all mine, nice hours, perfect location," she says, "where people can get their feet wet in the sand, and have a sushi bar on the beach."